Thursday, January 01, 2015

A Happy New Year or Will Racing Tap Out?

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 1, 2015—It is the last day of the year and everyone will start out even--everyone except those who are tethered to this game in both body and soul.

Despite the injustices that hurt every owner, every trainer, every jockey, every backstretch and, of course, the horseplayer, each is all in. This all-consuming exercise requires nothing less.

In a culture that will bet on virtually anything--even illegally, if the proposition is popular enough--it is the horseplayer that society holds in low regard.

For many, the horseplayer is a cliché: He is the guy you meet on a street corner, a racetrack, or even in front of a home computer wearing worn out shoes; with silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants, looking like he probably drinks a bit, too.

But it is the horseplayer who is the most resilient of gamblers: You can ignore him, lie to him, cheat him, steal from him and keep him in the dark. But you can count on him, win or lose, mostly lose, but he keeps coming back for more.

Until he doesn’t.

On both coasts recently, in jurisdictions considered to be the most important in the country, there unfortunately were disparate events that were cut from the cloth of ineptitude, arrogance, indifference or all the preceding.

Normally, these kind stories would make me angry. Instead, all I’m left with is a feeling of sadness.

It is true that hope cannot pay the bills, but hope is the currency on which this game is built, what it will need to survive. Without hope, interest wanes and all is on its way to being lost.

At its best, horse racing provides a sanctuary, an all-consuming antidote for real life syndrome. But there is no escaping reality. Like the poet says, every refuge has its price.

Several stories emerged in the final throes of 2014 that give even the most hopeful horseplayers pause, fearing that all the talk and promises are empty. Change for the better is hopeless, just another sleight of hand.

Today, New York-based trainer David Cannizzo begins serving a 45-day suspension because three horses he trained, two winners and a runner-up, tested positive for Propoxyphene.

As climate-change deniers say, I’m no scientist, but the painkiller best known by its trade name, Darvon, is classified as a Class 3 drug by the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

If a painkiller isn’t a reliable performance enhancer, I shudder to think how harmful Class 2 and Class 1 drugs truly are, whatever the scenario.

Cannizzo has denied any wrongdoing, telling Daily Racing Form that it was “a total contamination type of thing…nothing we did…still trying to figure it out” and the reason he didn’t appeal is because “there are too many big things coming up.”

The trainer originally was suspended 75 days, of which 30 were stayed, and he was fined a total of $6,000, the owners compelled to forfeit purse money by order of the New York Gaming Commission.

Cannizzo, a third generation horseman, is the brother of Jeffrey Cannizzo, the current Executive Director of the New York State Breeders Inc. The optics on this look none too good.

Things are no better on the left coast given the report that Rodenticide, rat poison, is “a possible link” between the seven horses from Bob Baffert’s barn that died within 18 months of Sudden Equine Death Syndrome.

A 2013 investigation concluded that environmental factors were possible links; the barn itself, possibly Hollywood Park’s track surface. A cluster of death in such a short time, from one barn? More bad optics.

Last year, Dr. Rick Arthur of the California Horse Racing Board talked about a possible link to the thyroid medication Thyroxine, whose properties stimulate the consumption of oxygen and increase metabolism.

Overuse in animals results in hyperactivity, excess consumption of water or feed and a faster heart rate. Thyroxine was administered to every horse in Baffert’s barn whether it had thyroid issues or not.

Another use for Thyroxine in a healthy equine, however, is as an EPO antidote, a medication that thickens blood by producing extra red blood cells to ward off fatigue.

Horses treated with Erythropoietin tire at a slower rate, taking advantage of “extra oxygen” created by the increase of red blood cells. Thickened blood causes clots and blood clots can cause heart attacks in healthy individuals. Worse optics, still.

But it was the greed displayed by Santa Anita last Sunday which was the most egregious example of the kind of disregard executive bean counters, officials and industry organizations can have for their customers and their sport.

Despite the protestations of a horseplayer activist who contacted the CHRB, stewards, and track executives before the day’s second race, wanting some explanation as to why one particular soon-to-be 6-year-old mare, Seeking Bliss, was allowed to race.

The activist also wondered aloud on his widely circulated industry-contact list why no action was taken by the Jockeys Guild: The response he received was an email from a Guild operative asking that his name be removed from the mailing list.

It never should have reached that point. Prior to Sunday, Seeking Bliss raced seven times. Six times she finished last, losing by an aggregate 239 lengths, 34 lengths per start. The race in which she beat three of 10 rivals, she was 112-1.

In another race, her post time odds were 133-1. The shortest prices in those starts were 33-1 and 37-1. In six of those seven races, she earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 0.

Last Sunday she was last of nine, beaten off after breaking badly and far behind her rivals. She ridden out by her 7-pound apprentice jockey to complete the course “a quarter mile behind the field,” according to the official chart. She was 94-1.

No racetrack, most especially one of the premier winter signals in the world, has any business allowing this type of no-hope money-burner to race. She should not have been allowed to race for her own protection, her rider’s safety and the integrity of the betting pools.

If my colleague Paul Moran were writing this, he might have described Santa Anita’s behavior as being cravenly avaricious.

Worshipping at the altar of bottom line handle must end for this game to survive. If the racing office can’t fill a sufficiently, or find a suitable extra, then run one less race. If this is habitual, shorten the race week.

Tracks run large fields of lower class horses to feed their multi-race race pools, believing that more “spread races” will increase handle and/or create carryovers, catering to a small pool of gamblers and arbitrageurs who command a sizable percentage of handle.

What will they be left with after these market speculators move on to the next big thing?

Low-takeout, high-degree-of-difficult wagers, often promoted with ersatz guaranteed minimums, are a money-suck of rank-and-file horseplayer bankrolls.

Admittedly, carryovers create increased handle, but most every day players are frozen out because of bankroll limitations. Track executives fail to realize that more bettors will jump into horizontal pools when they see a “free square.”

Big payoffs create big headlines for a day. Smaller payoffs create more winners and a fiscally healthier fan base by keeping betting money in circulation. The low-takeout wager is, on balance, a promotional shell game.

Increasing the number of betting opportunities is another narrow minded approach. Too many betting opportunities; not enough money in individual pools. Not enough money in individual pools; more late-odds drops.

Worse, it kills pool liquidity. Too many bets per card turns off the whales that all bet-takers covet. And worse, still, it hurts every level of bettor who, like the game, must churn to survive. But, I digress.

What makes me dejected on the most hopeful day of the year is that a handful of recent events show a lack of respect for the game’s equine athletes, the sport, and the intelligence of its customers.

Maybe what’s needed here is for horseplayers to stage die-ins in front of every grandstand and clubhouse gate at every major venue

Who knows? Maybe an unconcerned and disinterested mainstream media will be compelled to shine a light on what’s at stake: history; tradition; jobs and a way of life. What depresses most is knowing, through the prism of past performances, that truly meaningful reform will not be coming from within.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Difficult Year for Eclpse Voters: One Man’s Ballot

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., September 27, 2014—The year 2014 had a little bit of everything and it was the kind diversity that made the game an interesting sport to follow and, as a result, this year's Eclipse voting promises to have its share of controversial debate.

The phrase one often hears when an upset occurs is “that’s why they call it gambling.” When it comes to the sport itself, it's more like “that’s why they run the races.”

Now that the time has come to make our Eclipse ballot public, the refrain should be "that’s why they call it handicapping. And, so, here it is, one man’s opinion.

Steeplechase Horse: 1st - Demonstrative, 2nd - Divine Fortune, 3rd - Decoy Daddy.

The three Ds had this category locked up although there was daylight between the exacta finishes and Decoy Daddy. In the final analysis, it was our top vote with a 3-2 Grade 1 edge over the runner-up.

Two-Year-Old Male: 1st - Texas Red, 2nd - American Pharaoh, 3rd - Carpe Diem

Misfortune robbed fans of a highly anticipated East-West battle between Carpe Diem and American Pharaoh due to the latter’s misfortune. But who’s to say that Texas Red would not have seized the day, anyway? Indeed, his electric finish was reminiscent of Arazi. Hopefully he’ll have a much better three-year-old campaign.

Two-Year-Old Filly: 1st - Take Charge Brandi, 2nd - Lady Eli, 3rd - West Coast Belle
We love it when equine athletes turn this an exercise into a no-brainer by dominating the important races in their category, which is exactly what ‘Brandi’ did in traditional fixtures that determines championships. So what if I think Lady Eli has more talent? That’s what 2015 is for.

Three-Year-Old Male: 1st - California Chrome, 2nd - Bayern, 3rd - Shared Belief
I know, I know: Maybe Bayern’s the better horse; maybe Shared Belief is better than both of them. All have imposing records, disparate imposing records and extenuating circumstances when they went head to head to head. But that’s what 2015 is for.

Three-Year-Old Filly: 1st - Untapable, 2nd - Stopchargingmaria, 3rd - Lexie Lou
Stopchargingmaria won the two most important Grade 1s they run in Saratoga and an overall excellent record. But how can Untapable not be a unanimous choice?

Older Male: 1st - Palace Music, 2nd - Main Sequence, 3rd - Wise Dan
Far and away, Palace Music was the Best Older Male of the Half Year…it happens.

Older Female: 1st - Close Hatches, 2nd - Dayatthespa, 3rd – Iotapa
Far and away, Close Hatches was the Best Older Mare of the Three-Quarter Year. Dayatthespa if a turf specialist, of course, but she finished the season the right way in marquee events; Iotapa was the mist accomplished out west.

Male Sprinter: 1st - Work All Week, 2nd - Private Zone, 3rd – RichTapestry
Work All Week compiled the perfect sprint resume this year at three-quarters of a mile, including the one that matters. In fact, he’s never lost a dirt sprint in his entire life.

Female Sprinter: 1st - Judy the Beauty, 2nd - Artemis Argotera, 3rd - Sweet Reason
Judy tried so hard last year but came up a bit short, so her trainer decided to do everything he could to make amends this year. Well done, Judy; well done, Wesley.

Male Turf Horse: 1st - Main Sequence, 2nd - Wise Dan, 3rd – Flintshire
Until the Hollywood Derby, my choice for Horse of the Year. Four starts; four Grade 1 victories in four traditional route fixtures. Meanwhile, the two-time defending Horse of the Year also goes 4-for-4, overcoming a life threatening illness, only to be shut out. It was just that kind of kooky year.

Female Turf Horse: 1st - Dayatthespa, 2nd - Crown Queen, 3rd - La Tia
Her record was not overwhelming, with two Grade 1s and a restricted state-bred stakes but she stepped her game way up in the Fall including the day when the whole world was watching and at a distance that many believed was beyond her best. She did it an old school way; she earned it.

Owner: 1st - Ken & Sarah Ramsey, 2nd - Kaleem Shah, 3rd - Martin & Coburn
I’m not quite sure any owner of a non-classic type animal got any more out of their stud than the Ramseys have gotten--and keeping getting--from their beloved Kitten. Kitten’s Joy and the Ramseys are everywhere, winning everywhere they go. Don’t know the man but happy for Kaleem Shah. He’s heavily invested in this game and people like him should be recognized… The DAP duo had the title locked up until one bad in New York. Guess if you can’t make it there, you can’t make it anywhere.

Breeder: 1st - Adena Springs, 2nd - Ken & Sarah Ramsey, 3rd - Chester & Mary Broman
Year after year, quality over quantity—and sometimes that, too—from the Stronach Group… And a tip of the cap to the Bromans, who have turned out more runners at their place in Chestertown, New York than just about any other family operation, anywhere.

Jockey: 1st - Javier Castellano, 2nd - Mike Smith, 3rd - Irad Ortiz
Javier’s just too prolific; seems to be in the sweet spot of every race, whatever the dynamics—although he needs to be a little more careful away from the starting gate. Smith is a remarkable athlete (but he owed it to the game to claim foul one day at Santa Anita). For Ortiz, it just might be a matter of time.

Apprentice Jockey: 1st - Drayden Van Dyke, 2nd - Juan Saez, 3rd - Angel Cruz
Van Dyke’s record speaks for itself and from the little we’ve seen he’s wily beyond his years… Clearly, the Juan Saez story was the saddest of 2014, just a damn shame…Angel Cruz sure wins a lot of races.

Trainer: 1st - Art Sherman, 2nd - Chad Brown, 3rd - Todd Pletcher
Only the kind of horsemanship displayed by Sherman could have overcome the extraordinary achievements of his two brilliant, young challengers. We’ve said it before: It’s a lot easier with several barns full of running Thoroughbreds but it’s another to get them into the circle so consistently and in so many big spots.

Horse of the Year: 1st - California Chrome, 2nd - Main Sequence, 3rd – Bayern
As I look over my ballot, how could Wise Dan not lead in any category; how could Bayern not? Racing fans know all the stories. For us, the above was how this strange brew of 2014 shook out, and I'll say this, too. Everyone on this list is a prodigious winner that had one hell of a year..

Bets’ N Pieces: Come one, come all to South Florida, where youth and age will be served…When longshot Mad Patriot reached the finish line first Saturday at Gulfstream Park, it raised Gary Bain’s yearly winning streak to 34 consecutive years. How cool is that? “I’m 62 going on 19,” Bain told the Gulfstream Park press staff after the race, returning to the winners’ circle to a warm round of applause. And good for owner/trainer Christine Wasilewski. Good for her, too…

Marathon races, especially on turf, are properly regarded as “rider’s races.” The axiom was proved again yesterday when Johnny Velazquez timed the late run of Irish Mission perfectly to win the Grade La Prevoyante, likely delaying her trip home to the breeding shed. Christophe Clement saddled both the highly regarded winner and longshot runner-up Tabreed

Likewise, it was Javier Castellano who emerged from the pack at just the right time in midstretch with Divine Oath to take the G3 McKnight for Todd Pletcher. The victory continues the 2014 trend of three-year-olds defeating their elders this Fall. Sophomores swept the top prize in the G1 Jockey Gold Cup, Breeders’ Cup Classic and Clark Handicap. Divine Oath was the only three-year-old in the limit field…

Soup’s On: The talented, lightly raced Speechify, who cannot tolerate straw and nearly choked to death, and then suffered a condylar fracture, has been nursed back to health and took the 6-furlong G3 Mr. Prospector in 1:09.54. Very much looking the part, a beautiful, black coiled-spring of energy in the paddock, ran to his appearance and should be a factor against top sprinters in 2015. He’s fed a very soupy mixture of mash each day.

What Time Is It? I know there has been some rain in the area preceding Saturday’s program and the turf course was soft, but those running times were either unusually slow or wrong. Stay tuned…

Overly Impressive: The public bet early and often, as if Overcontrol was SoFla’s worst kept secret, opening at 1-9 and virtually remaining there throughout until tons of late money showed for 5-2 runner-up, Centauro Star, in his way, as impressive as the winner. Breaking last from the rail on the wet, drying-out strip, Indian Charlie colt showed an extreme turn of foot to narrow the gap at headstretch and was finishing strongly behind the winner who by that time appeared to be idling. Will be betting him back next time but 5-2 seems highly unlikely.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

D. Wayne Lukas and a Dash for Cash

PLANTATION, FL., December 14, 2014—All his life, Darrell Wayne Lukas of Antigo, Wisconsin has been making this mad dash toward destiny. And, at 79, the end does not appear anywhere in sight.

Dashing as ever, indeed, Lukas as familiar figure, a handsome gent framed in a dark suit, white shirt, tie, and, of course, the latest in shaded eyewear.

On Saturday, he acted in the Los Alamitos winners’ circle like a man who has been there before. And has he ever.

Lukas saddled the greatest horse he ever trained at Los Al, the Quarter Horse Dash For Cash, a great champion that eventually would lead to his 2007 induction into the Quarter Horse Hall of Fame—eight years after his initiation into the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame.

There he stood, posing with owner Willis Horton and friends following Take Charge Brandi’s victory in the Starlet Stakes, the eighth time Lukas and one of his Thoroughbred pupils have done so.

Of course, among his myriad accomplishments, he’s probably most respected as a trainer of trainers, three of whom had a fine Saturday of their own.

I first became aware that Take Charge Brandi was highly regarded after watching her do all the dirty work yet not get the money in the Grade 3 Schuylerville Stakes at Saratoga.

I learned more about it when the winning trainer of Fashion Alert, prize pupil Todd Pletcher, said how he knew his filly would be in for a tough tussle because “Wayne loved his filly.”

And so we made a Saratoga Diary entry and noted it when ‘Brandi’ returned to run in the Adirondack Stakes. We bet our money and lost; she managed to beat only half the field.

We didn’t think it was one of Corey Lanerie’s finest moments on horseback but then maybe the old ball coach with a Masters Degree in Education from the University of Wisconsin was just banging on the trainer’s drum, another thing Lukas does very well.

With two consecutive excuses in our view, we bet her back with both hands when next she appeared in Churchill’s Pocahontas Stakes.

Surely this would be the day: Bred to go long on both sides of her pedigree, she was making her first start around two turns on the track where she made her winning debut.

Once again, she could only finish ahead of half the competition, only this time with no excuses. Divorce papers were filed and, this being the nature of the game, she’s not been beaten after she failed yet one more time in the Alcibiades at Keeneland.

It is generally conceded that the Santa Anita highway helped her reach the Juvenile Fillies finish line first. Next time, her style and condition fit the Delta Downs dynamics so well she was able to win two straight, making her a prohibitive favorite for the juvenile filly championship.

But Wayne does like to remind us that believes in “running them when they’re good” and he used every televised moment we saw this weekend to say so, because as far as championships are concerned, “I just don’t trust you guys.”

Parenthetically, that’s fair enough, coach, although I would like to remind you that we guys are but one of three voting organizations.

Wayne’s entrance onto the national Thoroughbred stage came on the third Saturday in May, 1980, the afternoon Codex won a controversial renewal of the Preakness Stakes.

Like the Starlet, the Preakness is a Grade 1 that’s probably more closely associated with Lukas than with any other trainer, especially after he won his sixth in 2013.

So, just when you thought Lukas’ career was over and out, he pulled himself back in.

There were many times when Lukas was overly aggressive, running them when they weren’t good, which lead to a bevy of mean spirited backstretch stories, some doubtlessly steeped in jealousy.

“It was steroids that made those two-year-old fillies look like four-year-old stud horses; that’s why he dominated all those filly stakes,” the critics said.

“He became desperate when his relationship with Gene Klein went south.”

It went on: “Divorces are expensive.” And on: “To make money he’s been forced to gamble big in the super-exotics.”

But worst of all, “that’s why he ran Union City,” the colt that suffered a fatal injury in the 1993 Preakness.

When this sport gets tough, the words of Leroy Jolley spring to mind immediately, how “the game is not played in short pants.” And neither is it played by choir boys.

Good, bad, indifferent, love him, or hate him, Wayne Lukas has the instincts of horse training genius, a visionary of the first order.

He taught everyone how to win stakes races in bunches all over the country by running horses right off the plane; showed rival trainers what their shedrows should look like; demonstrated how much cooler horses looked when adorned in a white bridle.

And he mentored human pupils that became trainers at the highest levels of the sport, three of whom also had big Saturdays.

Kiaran McLaughlin unleashed a first-time-starting juvenile at Aqueduct, Ocean Knight, a Curlin colt that showed a professional turn of foot to break maiden while geared down at the end.

And Mark Hennig, who won the G3 Sugar Swirl with Merry Widow and finished second in the South Beach Stakes a few Gulfstream races later with Baffle Me.

And, of course, Todd Pletcher, who won five races, three stakes, and a second to ‘Brandi’ in the Starlet with Feathered.

Fittingly for Lukas, his career would come full circle when he won the 2013 Preakness with Oxbow. He already had won four Eclipse titles as outstanding trainer; the Oxbow incident earned him a fifth, the Eclipse Award of Merit.

“When they start giving you awards, they are trying to get you to retire,” Lukas said in his acceptance speech, before adding this:

“I’m not retiring. You young trainers better get up a little more early in the morning now. We’re coming after you…we’re coming after you with a vengeance.”

Pretty much the way he’s approached everything since the coach left a high school class room behind.

Written by John Pricci

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